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Badgering the Beeb

Sir Fulke Greville wrote, in his Elegy on the Death of Sir Philip Sidney, that "writing increaseth rage". Written over 500 years ago these words distil precisely how I feel when responding to attacks on the badger in the media. I mention my latest battle in this ongoing war below, in the hope it will encourage you to do the same.

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We should be in absolutely no doubt that the threat to the badger from biased and inaccurate media coverage is as serious as the physical threats they face in the wild. A big statement you may think but just think how many people out their trust and believe what they read in their newspapers or see on television, especially when the subject, such as bovine TB and cattle, is complicated and challenging.

Those of you reading this need no persuasion of the rightness of the case for the badger, neither will anything I write or say open the closed minds on the other side of the debate. There are however millions out there who need to have the often-malicious lies spread about badgers countered at every turn. Direct action is not possible for many people, but everyone can pick up a pen.

Do not believe that you are not qualified or have enough knowledge to take on these people, all the information you need is available through the Badger Trust or your local group. The hardest part is writing that first letter. For an example of what a well crafted and researched letter looks like see Dominic Dyer's letter of 7 March 2016 to Lord Hall, sent to Groups and members on 8 March 2016. Dominic's book Badgered to Death and Richard Meyers classic The Fate of the Badger are also invaluable sources of information.

Anyway, to the Beeb. Back in March 2016 they screened their now infamous three-part programme Land of Hope and Glory, billed as a look at the lives of people in the countryside through their own perspective and made with the active assistance of Country Life magazine and its editor Mark Hedges. Whilst covering mostly light, uncontroversial subjects this was not the case with the feature focussing on a farmer, some of whose cattle were diagnosed as reactors following the skin test and taken for slaughter.

Whilst obviously upset the farmer laid the blame for the bovine TB outbreak squarely at the door of the badger and this was repeated by his vet and Hedges. There was no discussion of any other source of infection and of course no evidence given in support of their views. Neither was mention made of the overwhelming scientific evidence that culling badgers to control bovine TB would make any significant difference to the control of the disease.

Faced with yet another example of lazy, inaccurate and prejudicial journalism, or as I simply prefer to call it, journalism, the first of my seven letters was sent to the BBC, following their complaint guidelines, on 10 March 2016, complaining of bias and lack of impartiality. The correspondence which subsequently flowed between us eerily mirrored the whole badger culling debate.

I presented the results of factual scientific research and the views of the leading experts that culling badgers would make no meaningful contribution to the control of bovine TB and the BBC ignored them! It therefore came as no surprise that they finally rejected my complaint on 29th November 2016, eight months after my first letter. I do not intend setting out all the arguments put forward as I would like you to stay awake until the end of this piece, but one interesting point did emerge.

The BBC Guidelines do allow programmes to be made which express only one viewpoint but where the subject is "controversial" this has to be acknowledged and that a" range of views exists and the weight of those views and should not misrepresent them". This is where I felt and indeed still feel, that they broke their own guidelines, twice. It was admitted that the subject was controversial and therefore the Guidelines clearly applied.

The programme stated the only reasons for opposition to badger culling were that the methods used were cruel and inefficient. It did not reveal to the viewer that the majority of scientific opinion was against culling and did not mention the scientific view at all. It did not therefore represent the true "range of views".

Turning to the "weight of those views" it was accepted that the opinions of the farmer, his vet and Hedges were given disproportionate weight. I felt that they were however simply focussing on the length of airtime given to those opinions rather than, correctly in my view, considering the quality, credibility and therefore reliability to be attached to the "range of views" above.

On the one hand there were the wholly unsubstantiated, unscientific opinions of the above trio and on the other the opinions based on the results of the largest ever scientific trial into bovine TB, cattle and badgers. Also, the opinions of thirty of the leading experts in the field set in an open letter to The Observer in October 2012. I even sent the BBC a copy of that letter. Again this did not properly represent the true "weight of views". I could not therefore see how any reasonable person could conclude there had been no bias or misrepresentation. I was however dealing with the BBC.

I have to say that throughout my correspondence I was appalled by the standard of the replies I received. This is not a case of sour grapes because my complaint was rejected, some you win some you lose, that's part of the game. There was no knowledge or understanding of the information in the public domain (see above) and that which they had to research following my complaint was selectively misquoted. I got the impression that they did not even understand the evidence presented, illustrated by the two following quotes from their replies:

"My research suggests scientists, vets and relevant experts tend to agree badgers are the principal reservoir of bTB in England". I pointed out it was in fact cattle. And the classic comment: " I don't think there is much benefit in engaging in a debate about the evidence and the scientific interpretation of that evidence". You couldn't make it up.

Turning to the "weight of those views" it was accepted that the opinions of the farmer, his vet and Hedges were given disproportionate weight. I felt that they were however simply focussing on the length of airtime given to those opinions rather than, correctly in my view, considering the quality, credibility and therefore reliability to be attached to the "range of views" above.

On the one hand there were the wholly unsubstantiated, unscientific opinions of the above trio and on the other the opinions based on the results of the largest ever scientific trial into bovine TB, cattle and badgers. Also, the opinions of thirty of the leading experts in the field set in an open letter to The Observer in October 2012. I even sent the BBC a copy of that letter. Again this did not properly represent the true "weight of views". I could not therefore see how any reasonable person could conclude there had been no bias or misrepresentation. I was however dealing with the BBC.

I have to say that throughout my correspondence I was appalled by the standard of the replies I received. This is not a case of sour grapes because my complaint was rejected, some you win some you lose, that's part of the game. There was no knowledge or understanding of the information in the public domain (see above) and that which they had to research following my complaint was selectively misquoted. I got the impression that they did not even understand the evidence presented, illustrated by the two following quotes from their replies:

I did think at one stage that it had been decided to reject my complaint at the outset and that all their replies were working backwards towards that verdict. No doubt an unworthy thought on my part. Needless to say I now have little or no faith in the BBC complaints system. Its structure is designed to give a veneer of legitimacy and openness but its actual operation is only as good as the people who operate it and that is where the problem lies. You may wonder if this is deliberate, I couldn't possibly comment. It did however certainly "increaseth rage".

Given the above it must seem strange that I am asking you to risk the same disappointments and frustrations but I am. You may be ignored but there are times when a letter is published, and you get the satisfaction of having set the record straight. It is also good to know people out there care enough to give you that opportunity. Never be put off or disheartened by initial opposition, always remember you are in the right and what is at stake.

Keep pointing out the inaccuracy of what is being reported, back it up with evidence then put the ball back into the opposition court by asking them for their evidence. There is no need to become rude or impolite just firm and persistent, some comments may arise out of a genuine lack of knowledge rather than malice. A touch of humour, when appropriate, may also not go amiss. Do not however be afraid to state dissatisfaction with the quality of any reply, especially when dealing with large organisations or government departments and asking for the matter to be referred to someone higher.

Although this article concerns written correspondence it applies equally to any information medium.It is a responsibility on us all to counter the poison of half truths and lies spread about badgers because if these go unchallenged they will become "truth" by default.

Having started with a quotation I will end with another, often attributed to Edmund Burke "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing". Think about it. Then do something.

Chris Neden

Badger Trust Supporter

April 2017

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